Interview: Henry Chalfant

By - Monday, April 14th, 2014

This past Saturday, Henry Chalfant was kind enough to sit down and discuss the “Moving Murals” project that is on display now at CityLore gallery. It was an extreme pleasure to be able to speak with him and get a better understanding of how the show came about, his role in the history of documenting the golden age of graffiti and also hear his opinion on various other topics. Henry is an exceptional wealth of knowledge and he speaks openly about an era of graffiti that he helped capture and continues to share with the world.

What sort of camera was the bulk of the images shot with?
It was a Nikkormat with a 50mm lens

Was there any particular place in the city that was good to bench?
My favorite spot of all was Intervale Avenue because the way I shot in a series and then spliced them together- it was high up, the trestle was high above this valley, and so there was no buildings behind it, it’s just sky. So I could take pictures and even include a little sky when I spliced them together, over the top it looked good. It looked better than having the buildings repeated over and over again. The next best spot, if I were really desperate to get something, I would go to because you could see them coming around was east Tremont, 180th street..No it wasn’t that far, East Tremont Avenue. I could stand sort of towards the back of the platform there after the covered part, look out over the railing and I could see the train coming and I could tell if there was anything on it where it would be and I could place myself

Were Martha’s (Martha Cooper) methods pretty much similar?
Martha had a completely different M.O. She had a little Honda, a Civic, very small and agile with a police radio so she could hear anything that was going on and go there with her car. So she used her car more, one neighborhood to the other… So she was more technologically advanced you could say? yeah (laughs)

Was this always a collaborative effort?
No, we didn’t know each other when we began. I think I began in ’76 seeing where I could take pictures of trains I went up to Baker’s Field, I was off the line like Martha trying to take pictures, and I didn’t have a long lens I just had my 50mm so I was standing on the bleachers at Bakersfield taking pictures of trains…little strips going by. Martha started later because she got hooked up with Dondi and that’s what started her on it. She was doing a story on pigeon flying and the boy who she was interviewing about pigeon flying had a graffiti piece in his house and she was asking him about that and he said well that’s my name. That was Hec and he introduced Martha to Dondi.

So it sounds like she had an in before you
Yeah, she did

Is there a definitive split in terms of the number of pieces of yours and pieces of Martha’s in the Moving Murals show?
No, this show, on my part is all of my train collection, every train that I ever took a picture of is here and Martha has a random selection of her portraits of people who were involved in the scene one way or another back in the late 70 and early 80s. Many of the writers are there who were active at that time and just to be in keeping with the time that we were both documenting the scene she put those in, rather than putting in trains.

Who came up with the format for the show as far as covering the whole wall?
This is the inaugural show for this space here at CityLore and Steve Zeitlin, the director of CityLore, asked me to do it. I was bored with showing discreet, individual trains so I said why don’t I put up what I did at MoCa (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles) and basically this is what I did out there. That’s more fun because it’s like an instillation each time you do and it’s different, it has such an impact compared to seeing 10 things on the wall, we are so used to seeing that- this is like, you want to see what it was like? Here it is.

Was there ever any doubt there would be a positive reception to the show?
I never imagined it would be anything other than well received. It gives you a good picture of that time and everyone is curious to see everything, which is only a tip of the iceberg really.

How many trains are included in the collection?
800 and…840 not included the duplicates. Which I will try to weed out the next time I do it (laughs). (I was not able to find any duplicates but mentioned to Henry I had overheard discussion of finding a duplicate or two on opening night)

Are there any that stick out to you as a favorite?
One favorite I could probably say, one that is best presented because I was lucky, was the swinging letter Blade piece on the blue background, and the Hand of Doom. Those are two which are whole-car top-to-bottoms which were fresh out of the yard when I got them on a beautiful day in the right light; they are very special for that reason as well as being beautiful works of art. They are special because I was able to get a good picture of them.

Is there anyone from that era you still keep up with on a daily or weekly basis?
I’m pretty much in touch with the friends I made then, the ones that are still around. Lee, Mare, Sharp, Skeme, Min and Agent…I’m in touch with them and quite a few others, including many from around the world.

Are there any writers today that you see up a lot or that you still look for?
No, not really, I’m much disengaged so no.

Has your view of graffiti changed as you’ve grown older or maybe as you’ve become a property owner?
No, It’s not the end of the world. Of course people bomb it (his property) and I’m annoyed..or if I know who did it I’ll tell them not to (laughs). But my own view, because it would seem to be hypocritical otherwise, is that it’s a surface, it doesn’t go below the surface, and one day it will all be gone. People will have moved on to other things, and it will all go back to the way it was so I can’t get so incensed about it.

Would you say you share the view that graffiti is sort of an oasis for color and creativity outside galleries, as new development moves in and everything seems rather dull?
Yes, definitely, the idea that art is not just an elite practice, it’s a popular thing and everyone does it. I don’t care how miserable and messed up a culture is you know, in terms of disaster or poverty, people are always making beauty within it.

Do you agree with the increasingly stiffer penalties being handed down for graffiti?
I do think that’s the wrong approach, and I always have. With the draconian methods used against graffiti writers that I think have gotten worse, and I think the stupidest most destructive thing that has happened as of late has been making it a felony to do $1,000 worth of damage. You’re talking about a young person with a life ahead of them and for something as basically inoffensive as writing graffiti, to basically wreck their life with that kind of a record, it’s a very bad policy.

Do you have a camera that you use right now or one that you’d like to “endorse”?
I do, I’m in between a 7D and a 5D, I lost my 7d so I’m going to get a 5d. I also have part interest in a PMW 200 video camera.

Any upcoming events you’d like to mention?
Yes at CityLore, on the 17th of April we are screening StyleWars, and in addition we’ll be screening StyleWars 2 Which is a film not made by me at all, but is an homage to Style Wars by two young European guys, it’s their first film about their experience of growing up, seeing Style Wars, being inspired to write graffiti and the impact that that had on them. It’s an autobiography with really smart references to the original film. (Information about this event and others like it is available on the website )

Anything else you’d like to put out there?
Yes, I’m still working on my archive. It’s an Ibook which is going to eventually be comprised of all my photos of graffiti on trains, all of the 800 however-many trains that are in this show. We, Carl Weston and I, over the last 8 years or so interviewed about 50 or 60 of the writers from the 70’s and 80’s, Carl is producing and editing it, and we went out together and shot it. That material is being put together in an interactive Ibook. All of the pictures are there divided up by artists and crews, and a portion of the artists have video interviews along with additional text and photos. So Carl Weston is someone I’d like to thank. In addition I am very much indebted to Aiko, she has helped me put up both of these shows (this show at CityLore and Henry’s portion of the show at MoCa in Los Angeles). She is wonderful. She was helping Marty (Martha Cooper) in Los Angeles, she was wheat pasting Marty’s things and she finished that right away. Aiko came and asked if she could help and I said sure and she sort of took over, and was such a help so anytime she can help me do this I ask her to. When this came along I was so grateful that she was free to do it. Also Special thanks to Max Hergenrother. Max did the “stitching”, cleaned up the photos and did the digital creation of the montage. He also did the architecture of the Ibook app, as far as creating the interface which is an immensely complex job. Max has done all of that so he gets big props.

Many thanks to Henry for his time and effort in making this little interview a reality.

The Moving Murals show is on display until July 10th at CityLore located at 56 E 1st Street.

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